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Spinal Tumors

What are Spinal Tumors?

Tumors of the spinal cord are abnormal growths of tissue found within or around the spinal cord or bony spinal column. Benign tumors are noncancerous, and malignant tumors are cancerous.

Any abnormal growth, whether benign or malignant, can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function.

Spinal tumors are named by the region of the spine in which they occur: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), lumbar (lower back), and sacrum (pelvis). Intradural-extramedullary tumors are located inside the thin covering (dura) of the spinal cord. Intramedullary tumors grow inside the spinal cord, and extradural tumors are located outside the dura.

What You Can Expect at UTHealth Neurosciences

At UTHealth Neurosciences, fellowship-trained neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, interventional pain management specialists, and radiation oncologists work together to determine the care each patient needs.

Throughout the treatment process, our team works closely with the doctor who referred you to ensure a smooth transition back to your regular care plan. While you are with us, you can expect expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.

Causes of Spinal Tumors

Tumors that originate in the spinal column are called primary tumors. The cause of most primary spinal tumors is unknown. Some are caused by out-of-control growth among cells that surround and support neuron-specific genetic disease, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 and tuberous sclerosis, or by exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. Doctors suspect a genetic component when they find a higher incidence of spinal tumors within particular families.

Metastatic or secondary tumors in the spine are caused by cancer cells that break away from a primary tumor located in another region of the body. Tumors can place pressure on the tissues and nerves of the spine and impair function. Common primary cancers that may spread to the spine include breast, lung, and prostate. Other cancers that may spread include cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney and thyroid; lymphoma; melanoma; and sarcoma.

Early Signs of Spinal Tumor and Diagnosis

Back pain that is not caused by injury, activity, or physical stress is the most common symptom of both benign and malignant tumors. Other symptoms include loss of sensation or muscle weakness in the legs, arms, or chest; a stiff neck or back; difficulty walking and frequent falls; decreased sensitivity to pain, heat, and cold; loss of bowel or bladder function; and paralysis in various parts of the body, depending on which nerves are compressed.

These symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over time unless the cause is treated. Our spine specialists diagnose spinal tumors after a neurological examination; laboratory tests; imaging techniques such as bone scan, CT scan, MRI, and positron emission tomography; and a biopsy, in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor and examined. Malignant tumors are given a numbered score that reflects the rate of malignancy, which helps doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome and long-term prognosis for each patient.


The most commonly used treatments for spinal tumors are observation, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Your doctors also may prescribe steroids to reduce any tumor-related swelling inside the spinal column.

If a tumor has no symptoms or very mild symptoms and does not appear to be changing, your doctor may recommend monitoring it with regular MRI scans. If surgery is an option, the procedure and approach depend on the location in the spinal canal. In the case of malignant tumors, some respond better to chemotherapy, others to radiation.

Spine Disease and Back Pain

Contact Us

At UTHealth Neurosciences, we offer patients access to specialized neurological care at clinics across the greater Houston area. To ask us a question, schedule an appointment, or learn more about us, please call (713) 486-8100, or click below to send us a message. In the event of an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.

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